On Rhizcomics

(Do note, “electracy” and “différance” are written as intended.)

Rhizcomics by Jason Helms describes itself as “unusual” and the main page on its website mentions that it can be read orders other than the “‘right’” one, in a manner similar to the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari that concerned rhizomes, such as A Thousand Plateaus. On the surface, a part of its purpose is to discuss aspects of rhizomatics, critical theory, and literary analysis in a distinct and, well, “unusual” format. But while that does cover a decent chunk of its apparent purpose, there’s certainly more to it that is quite a bit less easy to understand.

Notably, the foreword (by Gregory UImer) is rather confounding even for readers familiar with rhizomatics: it is written in a somewhat meandering manner, and it remarks on and references a number of terms that are only tangentially related to that subject matter. Ulmer also semi-regularly self-references, and writes passages that could be described as unapologetically rhizomatic. The key term one must familiarize oneself with somewhat before understanding the project at its core and its purpose is “electracy” – a passage at the end of the foreword reads “consider what is at stake in our world today, registered in the basic fact that the anthropocene coincides with electracy.”

“Electracy” is a term that combines “electricity” and “trace,” specifically Derrida’s idea of “trace.” It also takes inspiration from Derrida’s related idea of “différance,” which refers to dissonance or differences specifically in terms of meaning. With this in mind, “electracy” could be viewed as an idea of an “electric trace” or “electric path,” specifically perhaps, an electric path of derivation, or the path that electricity took. The “electricity” referenced by “electracy” is described as “the energy of digital civilization.”

However, “electracy,” similar to the Derridian “trace,” is not really strictly definable. In fact, the previous explanation of it doesn’t encapsulate its use in the forward well at all. Ulmer uses the phrase “literacy to electracy” several times throughout the forward, which on its own should give a vague idea of its use. Almost rhizomatically, it picks up aspects of not only “electricity” and “trace,” but also “literacy.” As a result, the term shares some meaning with ideas of, for instance, digital literacy.

Before moving on, some food for thought – similar to how rhizomatics can show a web of connections between even remotely related elements, what one could call “electracics” or “electranics” could show specifically a web of connections via electricity or a path through electrical or digital elements. The reason I dwell on this is that it reminds me of the work of Stephen Ramsey, specifically Reading Machines: Towards and Algorithmic Criticism. This connection is grounded in Ramsey’s discussion of rhizomatics and Delezuian ideas and how they play into literary criticism and critical theory in the digital age.

Due to its partial derivation from Derridian deconstruction, not even this entirely covers what “electracy” is and could be. But in any case, Rhizcomics is certainly an “electrac” text.  Ulmer writes that “in order to pursue the questions encountered in [Derrida’s] research he had learned how to draw.” After establishing that the anthropocene is intrinsically tied to “electracy,” he writes that “prayer and engineering do not suffice” and that “we desire effective change but are not able,” perhaps, to bring about that change. He ambiguously resolves this cited problem with a single word “draw.” The ambiguity of this is that he, possibly in reference to Derridian binary pairs, explicitly compares the act of drawing in terms of art and in terms of firearms. In brief, at least part of the purpose of Rhizcomics is to exist as a consciously “electrary” (think “literary”) piece with drawn elements.

In the page titled Some Context, Helms discusses the work of a number of creators, including, Jody Shipka and Susan Delagrange to establish just that – context. However, he writes that “new media also rely on interplays of image and text, though none so explicitly and obviously as comics do.” This is far more straightforward and less ambiguous than parts of Ulmer’s discussion of “drawing.” The implication seems to be that the answer to the question “why a comic” is that comics are the most explicitly and obvious reliant on the rhizomatic connections between images and texts.

More information can be found on the page titled Defining Rhizcomics. A “rhizcomic” (the term, not the title) is an interesting case because comics exist at the intersection of image and text, which in a sense, could be seen as a rhizomatic node. Strangely though, Helms claims the term’s creation was a “goof,” and that the rhizome would seem to be a “preposterous introduction to comics.” In any case, he discusses the way in which aspects and elements of a comic, such as characters, are intrinsically rhizomatic and connect to the text, the images in the text, and even other texts and canons. Thus, another aspect of the purpose of Rhizcomics is a piece of writing that was intentionally created with this in mind.

Despite the sheer amount of explanation the project needs to fully establish its context and purpose, and the amount of familiarity with rhizomatics that one examining this project would probably want to have, its audience may not be all that limited. Admittedly, the project requires an amount of conscious attention to interact with, and it’s hard to discuss in writing without simply restating much of what’s on the site, and it’s even harder to discuss aloud in this manner. Furthermore, due to how rhizomatics is as a concept, it’s difficult to discuss Rhizcomics in a concise manner.

However, while a given reader may not be able to grasp each and every piece of information the project has to offer the first time through, in part due to the sheer amount of it, a reader should be able to engage with, learn from, and enjoy Rhizcomics. In short, the people who would get the most out of Rhizcomics are those willing to dedicate a significant amount of time to reading in order to learn more about rhizomatics, philosophy, and miscellaneous criticism and analysis, and those who are already familiar with those topics looking for an opportunity to explore them further.

 To create a project like Rhizcomics, one would require immense knowledge of rhizomatics, Derridian deconstruction, philosophy as a whole, literary analysis and critical theory, abstract thought in general, and other similar concepts, not to mention familiarity with a plethora of assorted other texts and digital literature. Rhizcomics isn’t particularly similar to any other projects that I’m aware of. At least to me, it’s reminiscent of SCP Foundation – there’s a lot of information that isn’t too accessible to the user who isn’t willing to devote time to it, and many of the pieces on it contain links to other writing on it. However, with enough time and effort, one can come to understand the fictional universe of SCP Foundation and to the point where some of the entirely made up terminology in its articles (such as terms like “cognitohazard” or “elan vital energy”) become as familiar as real words.

I do want to say, Rhizcomics is perhaps the largest scale project I’ve interacted with that actively refers to and discusses rhizomes and rhizomatics. It’s definitely inspired me to keep my enthusiasm about rhizomatics alive, even when a given project or analysis may not call for it. After all, even a work or creation where rhizomatics “doesn’t belong” still has rhizomatic connections to other work. Knowledge of the rhizome has become all the more important in the digital age, especially many aspects of the world move from “literacy to electracy.”

On a very brief note, I can’t help but think about Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics whenever I think about Rhizcomics. It’s of course in part due to the shared aspect of oddly pluralized names, but also because both texts explore potentially esoteric subjects in a similar manner (although, Rhizcomics covers far more esoteric matters). Of course, the two works were created at very different times and in very different contexts, cultural or otherwise.

(Disclaimer: this was not an easy post to write. My flash presentation in class barely scratched the surface of Rhizcomics, in part because there was so much detail that I would have loved to talk about, but that I couldn’t due to the time frame. The previous revisions of this post either similarly failed to get into enough detail or were disorganized to the point of not being presentable. I’m not even too proud of this iteration, but I think it addresses enough and conveys enough to be at least semi-reasonable.)